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A Look at the Best and Worst Free Agent Moves of the NFC South

With the month of March continuing its tradition of drastic roster shake-ups, the teams of the NFC South have been active players in free agency. While the Tampa Bay Bucs have served as one of the league’s most popular landing spots for veterans seeking a new team (and hefty new deal), the New Orleans Saints witnessed the departure of many longtime stalwarts. In contrast, the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons remain relatively conservative in acquiring new talent, but both have faced criticism for surprising personnel decisions.

Focusing on the best addition and worst loss by each team, here is a look at early results of the NFC South’s changing landscape.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Best addition: Michael Johnson, DE (5 years, $43.75 million) – Despite the signing of a potential starting quarterback in Josh McCown, it is the addition of this former Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive end that could give the Bucs the first feared pass rusher since Simeon Rice nearly a decade ago. Johnson will certainly be an upgrade from the disappointing Da’Quan Bowers and new coach Lovie Smith already made it clear the six-year veteran will immediately occupy the right end position. Accruing only 3.5 sacks in 2013, the Bucs likely overpaid for the 27-year-old. But with all signs pointing to the defender entering the prime of his career, Tampa Bay hopes Johnson builds on his impressive 11.5 sack and 52 tackle performance from 2012.

Worst loss: Darrelle Revis, CB (signed with New England Patriots) – After unsuccessfully attempting to trade the veteran cornerback, the Bucs were forced to cut bait and release Revis. The decision not only saved his $16 million salary in 2014, but freed an equal amount of cap space and spared the payment of a $1.5 million roster bonus due March 14. His coverage skills may not have ideally suited for Smith’s defense — especially at a lofty price — but it stings to realize a first-round pick was surrender for a single season of ‘Revis Island’ in Tampa Bay.

New Orleans Saints

Best addition: Jairus Byrd, S (6 years, $54 million) – Releasing veterans like Will Smith, Jabari Greer, and Jonathan Vilma, the Saints’ defense will experience a bold makeover in 2014. Winning a fierce competition to land Byrd’s services, the addition of this 3-time Pro Bowler certainly anchors those changes. After getting the franchise tag by the Buffalo Bills in 2013, this 27-year-old rightfully received a mega-deal on the open market. Originally drafted as a cornerback in 2009, the second-generation player can cover, hit, tackle, and force fumbles. In fact, Byrd is everything one covets in a safety, and should become a force in the NFC South.

Worst loss: Darren Sproles, RB (traded to Philadelphia Eagles) – Needing to save his salary to rebuild a aging defense, many expected this play-maker to be released. Instead, the Saints wisely dealt him to Philadelphia for a fifth-round pick in 2014. Sproles is a perfect fit for the Eagles’ up-tempo offense, but the gun-slinging Drew Brees undoubtedly will miss the versatile back. Though the 30-year-old’s production on the ground dipped throughout his three seasons in New Orleans, Sproles never failed to catch at least 70 passes and 600 yards in each campaign. Such a reliable safety net out of the backfield is hard to find.

Carolina Panthers

Best addition: Roman Harper, S (2 years, $4.5 million) – It has been a tough offseason for the division-winning Panthers. Not only has the team lost its top four wide receivers from 2013, but it learned quarterback Cam Newton will require ankle surgery. In response, Carolina stubbornly remains quiet in free agency. Since only the addition of journeyman Jerricho Cotchery tended to these losses, the signing of this safety currently ranks as the Panthers’ top move. Likewise departing the Saints after nine solid seasons, Harper invaluably knows the NFC South. Now joining the league’s second best defense from 2013, the 31-year-old should provide veteran leadership, and is one of the league’s best pass rushers from the secondary.

Worst loss: Steve Smith, WR (signed with Baltimore Ravens) – Few stories around the NFL have proven more surprising than the release of Steve Smith. Many expected the veteran receiver would end his career with the only team for which he has played. In 13 stellar seasons, Smith became the Panthers’ all-time leader in touchdowns, receptions, and receiving yards. While the veteran’s production declined in 2013, he still reeled in four touchdowns and led the club with 745 yards through the air. Always boisterous, Smith’s presence will be missed in the locker-room, and fans have widely criticized the decision. While such sentiment is noble, the move was made to create cap space and Carolina obviously believes the 34-year-old is no longer worth a high price.

Atlanta Falcons

Best addition: Paul Soliai, NT (5 years, $33 million) – Adding a 340-pound nose tackle lacks the glamour of acquiring a return specialist like Devin Hester, but this was the move the Falcons needed most. There were many offensive disappointments during a surprisingly poor season in 2013, including a down year by quarterback Matt Ryan, injuries to the club’s top wide-outs, and a lack of production from new running back Steven Jackson. Yet, nothing doomed the 4-12 team more than the NFL’s second-worst rush defense. Switching to a 3-4 system in 2014, Atlanta hopes to change the sub-par result with a rebuilt defensive line, which will be built around the 30-year-old Soliai. The former Miami Dolphins’ lineman is a superior run stopper and should consistently clog the trenches for his new club.

Worst loss: Thomas DeCoud, S (free agent) – Assuming tight end Tony Gonzalez is sincere about retirement, the loss of DeCoud may sting most in 2014. Releasing the safety with two years on his contract saved $3 million, but the decision was likely equally motivated by performance. The 29-year-old was selected by Atlanta in the third-round of the 2008 draft and reached the Pro Bowl by his fifth season. However, just as the entire squad slumped last year, so too did the veteran DeCoud, who drew criticism for poor tackling in the secondary. Though anxious to change that failure, the Falcons may have acted hastily for minimal savings, since his track-record of 76 tackles and six interceptions as recently as 2012 will be missed.

Jeff Briscoe is a freelance writer and follower of the Tampa Bay Bucs. Catch him talking football and more on The Sports Train radio show in Southwest Florida.

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